Therapy and Buddhism

My office and my home are decorated with pictures and statues of the Buddha. I’m often asked why I surround myself with these images. I am a student of Buddhism and I have benefited greatly from many of the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism is not considered a religion as much as it’s considered a philosophy. The Buddha taught many ways to adjust one’s mind to be healthier, wiser, and more compassionate. I find those teachings very helpful in my life and in my work since much of my focus in this life has been on “mental health.” What does “mental health” mean?

Much of my studies in psychology have focused on the disorders and disturbances that one can experience in one’s mental health. These disorders are defined and labels are given to each disorder. For example, in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) there are twelve different anxiety disorders listed. Each of these disorders has specific diagnostic criteria that must be met in order for someone to be labeled with that disorder. One common theme among these disorders is that most of them say the specific fear needs to be “excessive” or “unreasonable” and that it must “interfere significantly” with the person’s normal routine, occupational or academic functioning, or relationships. As a therapist I have always found these qualifiers interesting because they mean that someone can be considered mentally healthy as long as their anxiety is not “excessive” and doesn’t “interfere” with their life. In my opinion that definition sets the bar pretty low for mental health!

Instead I like thinking about the Eightfold Path in Buddhism when I think about mental health. The Eightfold Path is meant to help one end internal suffering or dissatisfaction, thus helping one to achieve self awakening. The steps on the Eightfold Path are:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

I like to think of “right” as the way that moves you and the world toward greater peace, ease, and well-being. “Right” is not meant to be an external judgment where there is only one way but an internal compass that will lead you in different directions based on what’s right for you. From a psychological viewpoint, the Noble Eightfold Path is an attempt to change patterns of thought and behavior. And if your way of seeing the world, your way of thinking about the world, your way of acting in the world, and your way of being in the world are all moving toward peace, ease, and well-being, I would assume you’re on the right path! And THAT seems like a great definition of mental health!

So the reason I surround myself with images of the Buddha is that I find those images to be great reminders. I try every day to live with compassion and to stay on the “right” path in every moment and in every decision. I sometimes fall off that path, which is why I “practice” these ways of thinking and of being. The more I practice the less I fall. I know that I am the only one who can do the work for me. I try to help my clients take responsibility for their lives and do their own work to get on and stay on the “right” path for them. Most of my clients are very high functioning people who often do not meet the diagnostic criteria for mental disorders that are listed in the DSM. Yet most of my clients are dissatisfied with some aspect of their lives. My job as their therapist is to help them move even closer to peace, ease, and well-being. I’m so honored to be invited into my client’s minds and hearts in order to assist them in this process.

One of Buddha’s transcribed teachings says:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.

Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

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